Western Cape Health wants ‘judicial guidance’ on select committee powers

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Western Cape Health has asked the Cape Town High Court to clarify the power of the National Council of Provinces select committee on petitions, reports The Times.

This follows the committee’s repeated demands that health officials appear before it to answer allegations of unfair labour practices at Khayelitsha District Hospital.

The report says Western Cape Health head Beth Engelbrecht sought an interim interdict or the setting aside of her summons to appear before the committee, arguing that it was “illegal and infringes my constitutional rights”. Engelbrecht, who has twice in the past month declined to answer summonses from the committee, also applied for a judicial review to provide clarity on the powers of the NCOP and the committee. The department said it had legal advice that the committee was acting outside its powers.

However, the report says, committee chair Dumisani Ximbi said it was entitled to “summon any person to appear before the committee to give evidence on oath or produce documents”. He also questioned the partiality of state attorney Charlene van Tonder, alleging that in the court application she represented the department despite being mandated by parliament to issue the committee’s summonses to the department.

The report says since November 2018, the committee has held hearings, mainly featuring evidence from staff and ex-employees of the Khayelitsha hospital, which have been told it has become a place where people go and die. Last month, senior staff from the hospital alleged that understaffing, overwork and victimisation by hospital managers and provincial authorities were putting their own health at risk. They said many healthcare workers were being booked off sick due to stress and exhaustion, and told the committee they were often punished for raising concerns about staff shortages and declining clinical governance.

Babies and adult patients often died needlessly due to negligence and use of inexperienced staff, they said. When they questioned acts of negligence or wanted those responsible for poor clinical outcomes to be held accountable, they were intimidated and threatened with disciplinary action.

Engelbrecht said in the report that the judicial review application would benefit both the department and the NCOP, as it would be an opportunity to “finally determine the issues in dispute”. She said it was clear the committee’s actions flowed from an incorrect premise and its coercive tools represented a “harm which offends my constitutional rights and the broader principle of the rule of law”. In court papers, she said: “Given the impasse between the parties, it is important that this issue be properly ventilated, so that the parties are given judicial guidance on the correct approach.”

Ximbi said in the report that the committee would go ahead with its work and would meet again to make recommendations to the NCOP on what should be done to address problems at the Khayelitsha hospital.

Democratic Alliance (DA) MP Bronwynn Engelbrecht, who walked out of the committee’s meeting last week, said she left because the DA felt the petitions considered by the committee were “driven for political gain”. “In the case of this petition, it would have been proper for the select committee to refer the petitioner to request a judicial review with regards to the Public Service Commission report,” she said, referring to an earlier investigation of the hospital.

“The select committee cannot go over the head of such a body. We are not a court of law and therefore have no jurisdiction to override any legal ruling made by a legal body or committee set up to deal with specific issues. This is the reason why the DA, after numerous letters to the chairperson of the NCOP and the unanimous decision by the committee, did not attend certain sittings, when it was clear that the petitions were being driven solely for political gain.”

Marika Champion, spokesperson for Western Cape Health, is quoted in the report as saying that most reported incidents at Khayelitsha District Hospital had been thoroughly investigated, and concerns had received attention and been acted upon where appropriate.

The Times report

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